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Tilly: The Steak Fry in decline

BY ZACH TILLY | SEPTEMBER 16, 2013 5:00 AM

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It’s tough to look at the pictures of Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Tom Harkin palling around with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, cooking steaks with their shirtsleeves rolled up, and not get the sense that we Iowans are teetering on the edge of major political changes.

Yes, Biden looked characteristically jovial as the guest of honor at the Harkin Steak Fry on Sunday, the annual Democratic fundraiser that has drawn over the years such high-profile guests as Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore. But for all his youthful charm and the press’ 2016 chatter (and his apparently ironclad good looks), the photographic evidence is undeniable — Biden’s old.

Tom Harkin is old, too, and, when I got to thinking about it, the idea of a “steak fry” fundraiser seems real old-fashioned, too.

Iowa’s political system at the highest level is built upon a well-established set of traditions and a long-tenured set of old men, and that hierarchy is beginning to crumble at the hands of time.

Next year, Harkin will retire and vacate the seat he has held since 1985. And without Harkin, the future of his Steak Fry seems uncertain, too.

Iowa’s other senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, came into his current office on the Reagan wave of 1980. It is unclear whether he will run for re-election in 2016, but he’ll be 80 years old on Tuesday. 

Gov. Terry Branstad — the longest-tenured governor in the history of the United States (unless you count New York’s pre-Constitution Gov. George Clinton, and I don’t) — hasn’t officially announced whether he’ll retire or seek another term in 2014.

Even the Ames Straw Poll, which has only been around since the ’70s but feels ancient, could be in danger of extinction at the hands of the Iowa GOP.

The decline of Iowa’s traditional power structure could have some negative ramifications — a reduction of Iowa’s clout in the Senate, for example. Between Harkin and Grassley, Iowa’s delegation has around 40 years of experience and the influential committee assignments that follow such experience. Grassley is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Harkin is the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions  Committee. 

When those two pass along their seats, Iowa’s delegation will have to start from scratch on seniority.

But some good things could come from a changing of the guard in Iowa, too. A shakeup in the state’s congressional delegation could introduce a little bit of diversity that’s been entirely lacking. Iowa’s one of four states (along with Delaware, Vermont, and Mississippi) that has never elected a woman to Congress.

Only Iowa and Mississippi — that bastion of progressivism — have never elected a woman to Congress or to the governorship. Clearing out the state’s delegation could open some space for a more diverse set of representatives.

It could also lead to the death of the Ames Straw Poll, a ridiculous tradition that unnecessarily extends the campaign season by five months and gave an unsightly boost to the Bachmann campaign in 2011.

It seems that after a few decades of dominance, the reign of Harkin and Grassley and Branstad — the era of steak fries and straw polls, the only era youngsters like me have ever known — is coming to a close. What comes next remains to be seen.


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